Scott Sneddon is Senior Editor on SesayArts where he is also a critic and contributor.
From where I sit as an avid theatre-goer, the first two shows of the new Mirvish Productions theatre season are a major – and a refreshing – departure. After a curious flirtation with full-frontal nudity in the past two years (The Judas Kiss, Mrs Henderson Presents), this season seems intent on creating buzz and attracting new theatregoers of all ages by using sophisticated technology and staging. The result? Theatrical experiences that are more immersive, surprising and satisfying . . . and likely less controversial.
Much has been written about North by Northwest, a taut yet tongue-in-cheek thriller based on Hitchcock’s movie. The play recreates it shot-by-shot on stage, through creative use of full-size video screens and on-stage cameras that project tiny models (and even the faces of those operating the cameras). The acting is terrific – but the real star is this technological wizardry.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the second show of the 2017-18 Mirvish season. Winner of 7 Olivier and 5 Tony Awards including Best Play, it was adapted by Olivier Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon’s best-selling book, and is directed by Tony-Award winner Marianne Elliott (War Horse). Like North by Northwest, it is a visually dazzling – and technically stunning – production.
The play centers on Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old boy who is clearly on the Autism spectrum (though this is never actually stated). When he is overwhelmed by sensory input, he curls into a ball. If anyone touches him (with one notable exception), he recoils and screams. At the same time, he is a math prodigy: a large part of the plot centers on his determination to take his “A-level examinations” in math, which represent a path to greater independence. As Christopher is wont to tell almost everyone, he does not – no, cannot – tell a lie. He can only tell the truth . . . though the plot of the play tests this certainty, as Christopher learns that his understanding of the truth is based on a series of lies and misdirections. Joshua Jenkins, who also played the role of Christopher in the first touring company, rivets the attention with his aggressively urgent, matter-of-fact delivery and movement.
Once again, though, the breakout star of the play is the set, staging and direction – and the technology underpinning them. The play opens with an arresting image. Literally dead center stage is the corpse of Wellington, a large dog, with a pitchfork sticking out of its side. Christopher is huddled by it, visibly upset. The first half of the play focuses on Christopher’s urgent quest to determine who killed Wellington. After this initial shock of physicality, we see that the stage around Christopher and the dog is a huge digital box with screens on 3 sides and a floor surface that Christopher can draw on, with the images projecting onto the walls. Throughout the play, drawings or maps or words or numbers of all sizes and shapes will appear on these screens, which subdivide into countless smaller squares, which can also be illuminated to create the appearance of pathways.
As we watch Christopher interact with a policeman (Matt Wilman) and the dog’s owner, Mrs Shears (Amanda Posener) we quickly realize that despite the physicality of the dog corpse, we’re not watching a series of literal, “realistic” events. We’re actually inside Christopher’s head. The big, digital box on stage is his mind processing the connections and interplay of events and insights. When he questions the neighbours during his investigation of Wellington’s death, their houses are digital outlines with the street number highlighted. When a person comes to the door, they thrust their face an inch away from Christopher’s. This is not something people would literally do, but is the way the experience must feel to Christopher, who prefers being alone.
The supporting actors remain at the periphery of the box. They leap into tightly choreographed and superbly acted action as whoever or whatever is part of his experience – whether it’s a remembered person, or an object such as a footmat, doorway or staircase. And as Christopher ventures further and further afield, the digital box fills with piercing strobe lights (so intense that I had to close my eyes), raucous music anchored by propulsive bass, and a visual cacophony of screen-filling words and numbers. Repeatedly, his sense of overwhelm becomes ours. We hang on for dear life with him, as he grabs onto a map, a logical deduction, a previous insight, a scientific theory or a remembered lesson from his teacher . . . and finds a creative way to tamp down the chaos and reassert a perilous equilibrium and order, despite trauma and the upset.
Over the course of the play, it becomes evident that his mind actually encompasses the entire theatre, including the audience. The sonic and lighting assaults engulf the entire building. His teacher Siobhan (Julie Hale) roams the theatre. At critical moments, she pops up to dispense remembered lessons from on-stage, from in the audience in front of the stage, and even from way up in the Dress Circle (where I was seated). As the chronology of events blurs, so does the fourth wall. Christopher recalls his teacher discussing the idea of making a play from Christopher’s memoir of events (his notebook is a key object in the play). He is resistant . . . but 30 minutes later, they are discussing how they’re in a play right now, and whether or not the audience will be interested in Christopher’s current enthusiasm.
In one emotionally charged scene with Judy and Ed (Emma Beattie and David Michaels), Christopher flings off his sleeping bag in distress . . . and sends his running shoe into the audience. During intense conversation in the ensuing scene, he puts on the other shoe and furtively looks for the missing one. After a couple of minutes, an audience member throws the shoe back onto the stage, garnering brief acknowledgement and a visible sense of relief from the always-in-character Jenkins (and some chuckles from the audience). I wasn’t sure if this event was a one-time accident or particularly adept staging – but regardless, it illustrates brilliantly how the audience and theatre – like the digital box and the other actors – are aspects of his mind in this multi-sensory experience.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a unique theatrical experience which immerses – and implicates the audience in – the life experience of Christopher Boone. The outline of Wellington remains center-stage throughout the play as the always-visible catalyst for the journey of growth – and great bravery – that we are all a part of. And this journey, from a murder mystery to a kind of life mystery, is mediated seamlessly by technology, brilliant staging, surprising performances and intensely intricate choreography. We watch Christopher play with his train set in the first act . . . and are dazzled by the related piece of technological stagecraft that propels the plot forward just before intermission. In the second act, we watch as light and sound transform the digital box into a subway tunnel, and Christopher fights to decode the subway’s rhythms and save his pet rat. And throughout, we see Christopher walk, run and tumble on the floor and the sides of that on-stage digital box, following pathways that are alternately metaphorical, mental and literal. This technologically dazzling journey and experience – 3 hours inside a very different kind of mind – is sometimes overwhelming, but always mesmerizing.
Oh . . . and one final thought. If you do go see The Curious Incident, don’t rush off too quickly at play’s end. The play ends with Christopher asking a final question repeatedly. While that question hangs in the air, and after the curtain call has raced by, take a moment before rising from your seat. This way, you won’t miss a valuable final lesson that explains – and utilizes – the digital, sonic and lighting technology, stars in their own rights that deserve a bow of their own.
News You Can Use
What: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, based on the novel by Mark Haddon; adapted by Simon Stephens; directed by Marianne Elliott
Who: Audiences 11 years of age (grade 7) and older
When: On stage till November 19, 2017; running time: 2.5 hours (including one 20-minute intermission)
Where: Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King Street West, Toronto, ON
Information and Tickets: Mirvish.com and 416.872.1212
1. Ontario Curriculum Connections:
2. Themes and Motifs:
Explore and Learn: CuriousOnStage.com
© 2017 Scott Sneddon, Sesaya